Of all the creatures that have made their way down my gullet, the banana slug is the most endearing. It's cute, in its slimy way. It returns to the redwood forests after the spring rains, reminding us that a summer of riverside barbecues is on the horizon. Banana slugs are hermaphroditic and have what must be the most reciprocal and giving sex lives in the animal kingdom, a matter of careful alignment and the matching of various ports and nodes before engaging in hours of tender consummation. They look like little yellow smiles. The thought of eating one really pinged the radar of my conscience. But I did it. For journalism.
The recipe for sautéed banana slugs, attributed to early German settlers in Humboldt County, might have been lost to the march of time were it not for an intrepid Humboldt State University scholar, Alex Johnson, who chronicled it and passed it on to the author of A Taste of Humboldt, whose book my friend stumbled upon and whose recipe she insisted I add to my list of gastronomical challenges. Thanks, Alex Johnson. Thanks, friend.
First, the harvest. These critters are hard to miss, with their immistakable yellow hue, which ranges in intensity from chartreuse to school-bus yellow. I plucked half a dozen from under logs and off trails in the Arcata Community Forest and stuck them in an old gelato canister. They made several slow and dispirited attempts to escape, but soon gave up and huddled together at the bottom of the jar. Looking through the clear plastic, I noticed that, close up, banana slugs have tiny little faces with tiny little red upside-down bow mouths that resemble those of sad teddy bears.
I'm going to hell.
At the suggestion of a noble friend, I stuck the jar in the freezer when I got back from my hike, to slow the slugs' metabolism and anesthetize them for processing. Slime removal is a major part of slug prep, and the most efficient way to do it is to douse them in vinegar. After an hour in the freezer, my slugs were catatonic enough not to suffer too badly. They did expel lots and lots of slime, which I rinsed off thoroughly in the sink. Sans slime, dead slugs are stiff and discolored and about a quarter of their original size.
I found some small and morally agnostic children to help me gut the de-slimed gastropods, then we sautéed them in butter and salt and, on the count of three, popped them in our mouths. The verdict?
The texture was a little like calamari and the taste was unremarkable. Slugs are high in protein, and like most entomophagic cuisine, flavor takes a backseat to nutrition and novelty.
It should be noted that eating improperly prepared slugs can lead to meningitis (something I only found out after feeding them to my friend's children). Slugs tend to chew on toxic mushrooms, among other things. Neither I nor the children fell ill, but I'm cured of my curiosity. The elaborate preparation process makes slugs a poor candidate for survivalist fare, and I'm not cavalier enough to risk the wrath of Mother Nature a second time. Sluggies, roam free, you're safe from my fork.
From A Taste of Humboldt: An Historical and Ethnic Cookbook of Humboldt County, California, assembled by Humboldt State University's Youth Educational Services.
Ingredients and method:
12 large banana slugs
Put the slugs in the freezer for roughly one hour. Remove and immerse them in vinegar for another hour. Slug slime will congeal. Wash the slime off thoroughly under running water. Using a very sharp knife, make a vertical cut along slug's body and carefully remove the dark entrails. Also remove the small, fingernail-shaped shell from the slug's head area. Sauté them well in the butter and your choice of seasoning. Serving over rice or rolled into sushi are also options.